By Michael Norton, Andy Metzger, and Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON -- More than 18 months after kicking off the 2013-2014 session, Democratic legislative leaders on Beacon Hill are playing a familiar game, leaving high-stakes issues up in the air until the final moments allotted for major legislating and likely leaving their colleagues with little time to review bills before voting on them.
With 36 hours remaining until formal sessions are scheduled to end for the year late Thursday night, House and Senate negotiators have yet to reach an agreement on five major bills, including legislation aimed at boosting job growth, updating gun laws, combating domestic violence, paying for environment and energy projects, and instituting new accountability measures at local housing authorities.
If agreements are reached on those bills, as many expect, they will compete for attention with scores of other bills that House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray are suddenly hustling through the branches now that time is running out for consideration of controversial legislation.
Bills dealing with water infrastructure investments and opening access to substance abuse treatment services are also being informally reconciled by branch leaders, with time winding down for action.
"I mean we're just like high school students - you got six months to do a book report, and you finally wait to the last week to do the work," said Assistant House Minority Leader George Peterson, a Grafton Republican who started in the House in 1995 and is not seeking re-election.
Asked if cutting so close to the deadline is strategic, Peterson said, "Some of it's strategic, but most of it I think is just human nature - keep putting it off until you have to deal with it."
Peterson said he believes the branches will be able to accomplish "most" of the bills in conference and said the timing means members will have limited time to review the final bills before taking votes.
"That's the one problem with this whole thing," Peterson told the News Service. He said, "And then the amount of bills that are going to be moving back and forth. People are going to have to really pay attention the next two days."
Rep. Stephen Kulik (D-Worthington), vice-chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said all of the conference committees are "making progress."
"People will have an opportunity to look at them in a timely way," he said.
Rep. Theodore Speliotis of Danvers, one of the longest-serving members of the House, said he wishes he could explain why there is no compromise yet on the major bills.
Speliotis said he thinks the pending turnover of the Senate president's position could be a factor. Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) is not running for re-election, and Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, a Democrat from Amherst, said this year he expects to have the votes to succeed her.
"We've had such a smooth era with the Senate president and the speaker - I think people are a little surprised there are some differences," he said. "That may reflect more the Senate than the House, with the changing of guard, that uncertainty."
"Take the guns bill, for example. I thought we had an agreement on that and I thought people were pretty much in tune that that was a good idea, and a great compromise. When do you ever have a situation where GOAL (Gun Owners Action League) comes out and says, hey protect the Second Amendment, and then the Senate chooses to go a step further. That muddies the water for that one. I think each one of those bills has a story like that," Speliotis said.
The House gun bill gives police chiefs discretion over the issuance of rifles and shotguns; the Senate did not agree to that provision.
Other lawmakers said they are hopeful agreements on bills will be reached before Thursday, but some have concerns about the gun bill.
"We'll get it done. I've been here long enough to know that we're approaching the deadline. That's when the best work gets done," Rep. Smitty Pignatelli said. "It's kind of frustrating at times. We'll get it done."
Pignatelli, a Democrat from Lenox, said he expects the branches will remain in session late Wednesday and Thursday. "I'm very confident we'll get these things done, as we move forward. I'm not concerned at all," he said.
"The only area I have some concerns on is the gun bill. There seems to be some real big differences between the House and the Senate. But I am optimistic that we will get this thing done, and I think we need to get this thing done for everyone's sake," Pignatelli added.
Lawmakers in rural districts who represent sportsmen's clubs are concerned if the gun bill does not pass this session, it could be tougher in the future for their point of view to be reflected in legislation. Two advocates for gun owners, Peterson and Sen. Stephen Brewer (D-Barre) are leaving the Legislature.
Sen. Don Humason, who moved from the House to the Senate this year and now sits on two conference committees, said he believed human nature, not leverage, was behind the end-of-session pileup.
"If there was a strategy to wait to the last minute to run everything through, I'd like to think it would be more organized," Humason told the News Service.
The Westfield Republican who sits on the economic development and environmental bond conference committees said the environmental bond committee has met regularly and approached differences in the House and Senate by tackling easy disagreements first. He said the economic development conference committee has met only once, though legislative staffs have been in communication.
"It isn't as smoothly orchestrated as people think it is sometimes, and stuff does break down, and things do get held up to the end. I appreciate that. We all work better with a deadline," said Humason, who believes the process could be improved.
Humason also said, "I don't think it's necessarily fair to our constituents, to the media, to anybody interested in the process to leave it all to the end, but that does seem to be human nature, and the Legislature is made up of humans so that's how it is."
On Tuesday, the House and Senate assigned negotiators to agree on language overhauling housing authorities (S 2310/ H 4316). A conference committee reported out a reconciled version of a bill increasing disclosure requirements for super PACS Tuesday night.
Other six-member conference committees, which are named after both branches approve differing bills on similar topics, have yet to agree on consensus bills dealing with domestic violence (S 1897/H 4037), environment and energy investments (H 4150/S 2263), economic growth and job creation (H 4181/S 2411) and gun law changes (H 4285/S 2284).